For an astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson is certainly having his media moment, and then some. Beyond being the go-to guy for space talk in venues like “The Daily Show,” he’s become the host of the revived “Cosmos,” and this week not only narrates a National Geographic Channel special about the Hubble telescope but adds a weekly talkshow, “StarTalk,” to his media menu. Yet the series, at least, represents a case of stretching the Tyson experience a dimension too far, as well as demonstrating the limits of transforming something as static as a radio show/podcast into television.
Tyson amiably hosts the festivities out of his perch as director of the Hayden Planetarium, promising a discussion “where science and pop culture collide.” Given the initial guest roster — “Star Trek’s” George Takei and director Christopher Nolan, fresh off the space-and-time-bending “Interstellar” — so far, so good.
Still, what emerges is a disjointed affair, one in which Tyson is joined in each episode by different co-hosts — one a comedian, the other a fellow scientist — a format that dices the central interview into snippets, then features extended interludes in which Tyson and his fellow studio mates expand upon and dissect the conversation.
Honestly, though, a free-wheeling chat with Takei (even conducted without frills on the couch in Tyson’s office) about a life through the filter of “Star Trek,” or with Nolan about the science undergirding his films, doesn’t require, or much benefit from, the postgame analysis. And when Tyson tells Nolan that “Interstellar” is “an orgy of relativity,” it would be more fun to hear them explore that further than talk for 60 seconds or so before retreating back to the planetarium.
Nor do the producers do much in terms of illustrating these discussions with graphics or clips — which would seem to be a natural conceit — presumably because the emphasis is on filling an hour in the cheapest manner possible. That includes handing a few minutes in each installment to Bill Nye the Science Guy to deliver a brief rant about some topic or another, loosely related to science fiction’s relationship to society; these prove slightly stilted, but at least exhibit a bit of ingenuity and flair.
It’s a shame, really, since the series has lined up an impressive roster of guests — including Jimmy Carter, Norman Lear, Arianna Huffington and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — and where else is one going to encounter a talkshow that spends this much time waxing poetic about wormholes and black holes, or even the practical uses of a “Star Trek” transporter if we ever got around to building one. Given the popularity of the genre, there’s a great deal to be said for a program tackling where science and fiction actually meet — and where they diverge.
Tyson still seems like the right person to host that kind of show, but “StarTalk,” as constituted, isn’t it. So for now, the cosmic journey from popular podcast to satisfying TV show will have to wait for a different time and place, or maybe an alternate universe.